Dispensational and Covenant Theology

I originally posted this information on Sharper Iron a couple of years ago, but I thought it beneficial to have it posted on my own site. The goal of the essays is informational rather than polemic. I am not arguing for a particular point of view. Rather, I am simply trying to provide information so that discussions of hermeneutical systems might be guided accurately rather than littered by the straw men that are too often raised up.
Very often covenant theologians will criticize dispensationalists for misrepresenting their positions, and dispensationalists will criticize covenant theologians for misunderstanding their positions. These misunderstandings are due largely to one-way reading. Too often a dispensationalist will go to a dispensational author to find out about covenant theology. The covenant theologian engages in similar practice. Consequently, one receives a skewed view of the other system. Examples are plenteous. For instance, John Gerstner in his book, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, states that dispensationalists “claim a thorough faithfulness to Scripture…This conviction can lead to a spiritual arrogance bordering on a feeling of infallibility.” He goes on to write, “Scofield and all his followers exercise a kind of papal infallibilism.” Rather than discussing the differences of interpretational methods, Gerstner jumps to the supposed attitudes and spiritual condition of his opponents. Likewise, dispensational writer Arnold Fruchtenbaum in his book Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology says of covenant theologian Lorraine Boettner, “It is obvious that Boettner does not know the difference between Jews as a nationality and Judaism as a religion.” Boettner does indeed know the difference, but he was trying to relate the Jews to their religion more closely than Fruchtenbaum desired.
Statements such as those cited above lead me to suggest that we often debate with the caricature of the opposing system rather than with its true formulation. As a result, theological systems have nearly become a test of fellowship. The caricatures we have erected cause each side of the discussion to view the other as being less than orthodox. Fundamental, conservative dispensationalists often resist fellowship with fundamental, conservative covenant theologians. Although pleasantries may be exchanged between the two, there often exists too much suspicion to maintain any fellowship that is meaningful. This is not a plea to tolerate any change in theological formulation that would undermine conservative orthodoxy. This is a plea for Christian theologians to demonstrate kind reasonableness toward their Christian brothers who may differ in their hermeneutical guidelines. Granted, a dispensational fundamentalist may not be able to cooperate in ministry as closely with a covenant fundamentalist (will the new church building have or not have a baptismal pool?!), but that doesn’t mean that we should sever fellowship and cooperation altogether.
Consequently, I thought it would be best to write a series of articles that offers an explanation of each theological/hermeneutical system without the strain of evaluation. If we are going to disagree in this area (and we will), should we not be as clear as possible with what we disagree. It is one thing to debate so long as the one with whom I debate agrees that he holds the position I am describing. It is an exercise in futility to debate over a point that my opponent doesn’t even claim to hold. By gaining an understanding (may I even say “appreciation”?) of other theological systems we can speak more directly to the true areas of disagreement and avoid the straw men.
Please note that I am not setting myself up as the only one who has an unjaundiced eye by which to discuss theological systems. Let me say from the outset, I am a premillennial and pre-tribulational theologian. Though some within dispensationalism would not care to claim me as their own, I use the term of myself. I understand my tendency to see covenant theology through a dispensationalist’s eye. For that reason I have enlisted the help of my covenant brethren to critique my representative statements of covenant theologians, and they have rigorously yet graciously accomplished the task. I am thankful for all the help they have offered over the years. I hope that I have helped them understand dispensationalism as well. With the permission of the site director at SharperIron.org, I will present a series of 3 articles that I hope will be of benefit. 1) Understanding the Covenant Theologian 2) Understanding the Dispensational Theologian 3) Understanding Progressive Dispensationalism and Covenant Premillennialism.


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